Simon Mullin is the Head Writer for OnBrand, the in-house creative agency of American Express. In this role, he manages a team that creates sharp and compelling copy in a clear and consistent voice. Below, Simon explains how his team works together to produce strong copy. In his interview with the MS in Professional Writing program, Simon also stresses the importance of being able to explain your writing choices and edits when working in a corporate environment.
Q: Describe your current role and your daily professional tasks and responsibilities.
A: The role of a copywriter has certainly evolved since the days of Mad Men. Half the job is writing– the other half is being able to defend it.
Agency copywriters (and certainly those in-house, like myself and my team) are expected to write more than just good short-form ad copy or quippy taglines. We are leaned on for just about everything that involves the written word. And we have to be able to speak about why we wrote something the way we did. Whether it's a small print ad, a video script, or a full wireframe for a new landing page, copywriters have to be experts in both messaging strategy and hierarchy, as well as crafting creative copy that's simple, easy to understand, and compelling. Most importantly, we have to write in a harmonious, unified voice that is true to the brand's unique tone.
Q: What made you realize that writing was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
A: Rock and roll was my passion coming out of college, but I learned early on that there's a bit more job security in 9-to-5 writing gigs than heading out on the road managing bands. I completed my undergraduate degree at NYU during the height of the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce for new graduates. Out of college, I took a fantastic part-time job with AOL Music writing about up-and-coming artists. With a portfolio of music writing and essays, I rebranded myself as a copywriter. I took on what I could to build a portfolio that would show my range. I wrote about fabric for a home decorating company. I wrote about makeup for L’Oréal. I started landing ad agency work across the city. Slowly but surely, I made my way to where I am today.
Q: What advice would you give to a professional writer interested in a career like yours?
A: Agency writing is not for the thin-skinned or for those who want to massage their egos. Your writing will be scrutinized, edited, used in pieces, and discarded. People will take credit for your achievements and you will be held responsible for when you fall short. And you have to be OK with that because you want your voice/style/words to be seen. You have to want it. And eventually, every once in a while, your work will be lauded, applauded, published, win awards, and be broadcast across the world where it will be loved and used to change minds. If you have patience, are willing to put in the time, and are ready to fail ten times over to succeed once, I could not recommend a more engaging, challenging, and rewarding career than this. So, think twice – and then jump in with both feet.
Q: In your role and industry, how important is collaboration? With whom do you collaborate?
A: Writing copy is not like writing a novel. It is more like running a three-legged race, tied to the hip with someone you trust.
While you are always writing to tell a good story for the brand, you're often writing to persuade, and there's no better way to know if you're doing that well than by collaborating with a team member to review and give real-time feedback. Yes, we all need time to put on our headphones and get into the zone, but copy isn't written in siloes or in a vacuum. You'll want a trusted colleague to bounce ideas off of and review your work. In fact, I require my copy team to collaborate by assigning two copywriters per project: one to write, and one to scrutinize in a peer review.
Q: What do you look for in assessing potential new hires?
A: I don't look to hire someone whom I can tell what to do. I hire people who can bring a fresh perspective, offer new ideas, and make the team stronger.
When assessing new hires, I prefer seeing resumes that tell a story of someone who will do what it takes to succeed. I like to see a trajectory. Whether you started off writing blogs about lipstick or marketing used cars, I am drawn to portfolios that have writing on a variety of topics and in a range of mediums. And as I said earlier, half the job is being able to defend one's work to managers and clients, so, I look for candidates who feel comfortable under pressure and who thrive under scrutiny.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
A: If you're an NYU grad and want to talk about a copywriting career, I'm happy to be here as a resource. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get in touch.
Thank you to Simon Mullin for sharing his professional writing journey with us.
To learn more about the MS in Professional Writing program at NYU School of Professional Studies, visit sps.nyu.edu/mspw